By Baze Mpinja
32-year-old Naa-Sakle Akuete has an MBA from Harvard, but the best business professor she’s ever had just might be her mother, Eugenia.
In 2014, Akuete launched Eu’Genia Shea, a line of high-quality shea butters that are packaged in beautiful, embossed tins. Founding her own company wasn’t the path Akuete had in mind while she was in school, but the move proves that the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Akuete’s parents and two older brothers fled to the United States in the late 1970s to escape the chaos caused by a coup in Ghana. They settled in Maryland, where Akuete was born, and worked hard to provide a good education for their children. In 2000, when Akuete went away to boarding school in Massachusetts, Eugenia moved back to Ghana to take care of her ill mother. While she was there, she launched a bulk shea butter distribution business, which she named Naasakle International, after her daughter. Eugenia also became the first president of the Global Shea Alliance, an organization that advises governments and NGOs about shea butter standards, fair trade, and sustainability.
Akuete got plenty of exposure to the world of shea butter production while spending her summer breaks with her mother in Ghana, but Eugenia’s passion for shea butter wasn’t contagious—at least not at first. That began to change years later when history repeated itself. Eugenia got sick and Akuete stepped in to support her. “Back in 2013, my mom was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I started helping with her business operations to keep the company running. Then, while my mom was in remission, she got seriously ill with bacterial meningitis. At that point, I took over her business,” Akuete says.
As she got more deeply involved in the shea industry, Akuete’s appreciation for it grew. She decided to channel her newfound love into a company of her own—Eu’Genia Shea. In 2016, Akuete quit her job at J.P. Morgan to focus on her new venture, with her mom as her most trusted advisor. Eugenia’s health has stabilized, and she has been living with Akuete and her husband in Brooklyn for the past two years. The arrangement has its pros and cons. “It’s intense spending that much time together, but whenever I don’t know how to handle a situation, she’s right there to tell me what to do. It’s the best and the worst,” Akuete says with a laugh.
The close proximity might also explain why Akuete has become a shea evangelist, just like her mother. “I’m like the character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who is obsessed with Windex and sprays it on everything. When you use shea butter every day and spend time with the nut pickers, it’s really hard not to get swept up into it,” she says.
Eu’Genia’s butters are carefully processed to preserve all of the natural benefits and healing capabilities of shea, which is rich in vitamins A, E, and K. These properties are lost when a company overly refines the product by stripping away its natural color and scent, or when the quality of nuts is subpar.
In addition to offering an exceptional form of shea butter, Akuete also wants to use her company to elevate the perception of it. “Raw shea butter is often put into cheap, plastic tubs. That packaging doesn’t convey the beauty of the women who make it or that it’s a luxury product. In order to connote the quality of my line, I developed gold tins that really express the value of what’s inside,” she explains. It’s also a fitting concept because in many African countries, shea butter is known as “women’s gold.”
After five years in business, Akuete has a lot to be proud of. Eu’Genia Shea is now sold at Anthropologie, Credo, and The Detox Market, with more retailer partnerships on the way. The expansion is not only good for the bottom line, but also for the social impact it creates. Eu’Genia Shea donates 15 percent of its profits to an educational fund that benefits their team of 7,500 female nut pickers in Northern Ghana.
Although she’s still growing her current business, Akuete is already working on another line to make high-quality shea butter even more accessible. Called Mother Shea, it will launch in over 700 stores around the U.S. in July. As with Eu’Genia, Akuete will be relying on her mom’s expertise while getting her new brand off the ground, although she admits that lately, it’s hard to tell who’s who. “My husband jokes that I am slowly turning into my mom. I am a bit terrified of that, but when it comes to shea butter, I think it’s a fair statement.”